‘Guardian Sport Network’
From the outside, the striking thing was the fact that it was headline news at all. Gourcuff named in France squad. Yoann Gourcuff, heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane, darling of Bordeaux’s 2009 title-winning side, was this week selected in Laurent Blanc’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012. And it was the biggest story in town.
Anticipation of the squad announcement had centred on whether or not Gourcuff would get the call, at the end of a season in which injuries and poor form have restricted him to just 13 league appearances for Lyon, culminating in a sending-off for violent conduct against Ajaccio on Sunday. “It’s not anecdotal,” said Blanc of the red card, which Gourcuff received for an off-the-ball altercation with Ajaccio’s Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. “It proves that the boy isn’t in top form, both physically and mentally.”
Gourcuff’s inclusion in the 26-man squad therefore came as something of a surprise, but how has a player for whom such a bright future was predicted fallen so far?
In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.
With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.
The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.
Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.
Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.
For a team protecting an unbeaten record that now stretches to 543 days, France will approach Wednesday night’s friendly against Germany in Bremen with a surprising degree of uncertainty.
Since going down 1-0 at home to Belarus in Laurent Blanc’s first competitive game in charge in September 2010, France have qualified for Euro 2012 – without recourse to the play-offs – and enjoyed friendly wins over England, Brazil and the United States (as well as some forgettable draws against Croatia, Chile and Belgium).
Viewed from the outside, and against a backdrop of the self-inflicted humiliation of the 2010 World Cup, Les Bleus are turning things around. Bubbling beneath the statistics, however, are a multitude of concerns about the team’s style of play and a lack of both experience and leadership within the squad, while an ongoing contract dispute between Blanc and French Football Federation president Noël Le Graët suggests Blanc’s employers remain to be convinced by the direction the team is taking.
Blanc pledged to introduced panache and risk-taking to France’s football following his appointment in the aftermath of the infamous Knysna training ground mutiny, but although France have become solid and difficult to beat, their play has not captured the imagination since the first game of their current 17-match unbeaten run – a 2-0 victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo that came four days after the setback against Belarus.
Then, a team anchored by a midfield pairing of Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra, driven forward by the lolloping raids of Abou Diaby and centred around the new-found efficacy of Karim Benzema had hinted at a glorious future for Blanc’s France. Now, although Benzema has gone from strength to strength at Real Madrid, the team has lost its way.
The clue was in the number. “A press conference will take place on Wednesday 1 February at 15:30 at Parc des Princes to present Thiago Motta, who will wear the number 28,” read the brief statement released by Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday. Motta is a European champion and an Italy international, who cost the not insignificant sum of €10 million, but he was not the star signing that PSG had been hoping to announce on the final day of the transfer window. To paraphrase Garry Cook’s famous remark about Richard Dunne, he doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in Beijing.
There are vacant numbers in the current PSG squad list that could have adorned replica shirts liable to be torn off the rails in the club shop. Alexandre Pato might have chosen the number 11 shirt that he wore at Internacional and has sported at times for Brazil. The number eight that Kaká wears for Real Madrid is also unattributed. With Jérémy Ménez in possession of the number seven shirt and Mohamed Sissoko the number 23, David Beckham had been lined up for the number 32 jersey. After the Englishman’s abrupt volte-face, that shirt was earmarked for Carlos Tevez. But neither he, nor Beckham, nor Kaká, nor Pato will be seen in PSG’s iconic strip this season.
PSG made four signings in January – with Motta following Maxwell, Alex and new fourth-choice goalkeeper Ronan Le Crom through the door – but none of them were the marquee names that had held the local media in a state of permanent breathless excitement since the transfer window loomed onto the horizon in mid-December. Although Motta was relinquished reluctantly by Internazionale, Chelsea were quite happy to cede Alex and Maxwell left Barcelona with little fanfare.
There are few more glamorous locations than Paris and few clubs in the world capable of matching PSG’s huge spending power, but Ligue 1′s low international profile – coupled with the absence of European football at Parc des Princes in the second half of the season – has frustrated the club’s efforts to attract the kind of players who generate global interest.
“They say it’s because I’m a sexy boy. The English are crazy!”
- Yohan Cabaye, on the ‘Dreamboat’ nickname bestowed upon him by Newcastle’s fans
“Behind the ‘big guns’ like Chelsea or Manchester [United], there’s also Sunderland or Wolverhampton. French players who are used to getting on the ball end up watching it fly over their heads for 90 minutes.”
- Marseille sporting director José Anigo has some words of advice for any budding Ligue 1 talents dreaming of plying their trade in the Premier League
“If you want us to just stick it in the box like I’ve seen Stoke City do, you’ll have to change the coach. I forbid it.”
- Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti shares his thoughts on the football doctrine advocated by Tony Pulis
“Without wanting to be unkind, it’s difficult when there are only four of you defending. Sometimes you feel like you’re on your own. When you watch Barça, everyone defends – even Messi!”
- Laurent Koscielny feels a bit exposed in the Arsenal back four
“Sometimes I tell jokes and Joe Cole and I look at each other and we’re the only ones laughing.”
- Vincent Enyeama on the language barrier in the Lille changing room
“Bon match pour… my team – mon équipe – et… I’m very happy!”
- Ambushed by Canal+’s touchline reporter Laurent Paganelli, Joe Cole has a stab at his first interview in the language of his new homeland after Lille’s 3-1 win over Lyon
“Once again I’m attacked by Jean-Michel Larqué. I hope with all my heart I don’t end up like him after my career, but there’s no chance of that because I’m not an idiot.”
- Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Jérémie Janot has a pop at 63-year-old television pundit Jean-Michel Larqué, who had criticised him for letting in two late goals at Lens
- Aly Cissokho’s considered response to a supporter who told him to “go and join Arles-Avignon” during a Lyon training session in April
“Although the score was already 3-0, he’d been taking the piss out of us with the ball for a few minutes, dribbling past his opponent and then waiting so he could dribble past him again. It’s a lack of respect. Even his Lille team-mates said he was going too far.”
- Nancy captain André Luiz takes a dim view of Eden Hazard’s showboating
“Marseille come up to Paris to fuck PSG!”
- Microphone in hand, match-winner Taye Taiwo gets a bit carried away during the Coupe de la Ligue post-match celebrations by leading the OM fans in a chorus of one of their favourite chants
“It was a good response to people who don’t know football. It’ll make them shut their big mouths.”
- Modibo Maiga relishes his brace in a 3-0 defeat of Toulouse after stumbling into the viewfinder of the Sochaux boo boys
“At that moment, I told myself that they’d gone mad and didn’t realise. Today I know that I was wrong: they knew exactly what they were doing. They even closed the curtains on the bus to hide themselves from the cameras… With hindsight, I see them above all as a bunch of thoughtless brats.”
- Raymond Domenech is still struggling to let go of the 2010 World Cup
Tiny cracks may be starting to appear in the previously impregnable armour of Barcelona, with Real Madrid rampant and Pep Guardiola’s side rudely obliged to play catch-up, but this team’s place in history is already secure. The trophies and the unique, hypnotic passing style have made sure of that, but less remarked upon is the tactical legacy that they have bequeathed to the game.
As the first budding usupers begin to congregate at the gates of the Barca citadel, Football Further looks at five tactical maxims that Guardiola and his team have torn to shreds.
1. ‘Don’t mess around with it at the back’
As any Sunday league football captain will be only too happy to tell you, trying to play your way out of trouble in defence is the game’s cardinal sin. “Not there! Not there!” is the cry whenever a full-back checks inside and seeks to pick out a defensive colleague, or – heaven forbid – a centre-back attempts to carry the ball out from inside his own penalty area.
Professional football, particularly in England, can take a surprisingly similar view of players who try to build up play from the back, but Barcelona’s commitment to guarding possession extends to all areas of the pitch. Yes, passes inside your own area carry a risk heavier than passes made anywhere else on the pitch, but if you trust yourself to pass the ball five yards to a team-mate, why would that trust suddenly evaporate merely because you happen to be close to your own goal?
If anything, Barca’s players almost seem to enjoy playing each other into trouble at times, because they know their team-mates have been taught how to protect the ball properly. It is thanks to this confidence that they are able to rattle passes at each other at such an astonishing tempo, regardless of where they are on the pitch.
I’m pleased to announce that, as of this week, Football Further is in partnership with The Guardian under the banner of the new Guardian Sport Network.
Content from 15 blogs, including Football Further favourites Zonal Marking, Snap, Kaká and Pop! and Hasta El Gol Siempre, will be cross-posted on The Guardian‘s sport blog in a bid to diversify their content and shine a light on the work of some carefully selected bloggers.
The project was launched on Wednesday with the publication of three blogs, including my piece on the search for Javier Pastore’s missing smile at Paris Saint-Germain.
For more information on the Guardian Sport Network, read guardian.co.uk/sport editor Sean Ingle’s introduction to the initiative here.
For the pundits on Canal+’s Ligue 1 review programme, Les Spécialistes, it was something of a radical departure. Usually tasked with the scrutiny of borderline offside decisions or the analysis of new tactical experiments, the panellists on Monday night’s show were asked to study Javier Pastore’s smile. Or, more specifically, its sudden disappearance.
Ever since a jaw-dropping piece of control during a warm-up shortly after he arrived at Paris Saint-Germain, Pastore’s pre-match preparations have been the focus of much more attention than the more perfunctory stretching and jogging of his contemporaries. As a result, the production staff at Canal+ were able to compare and contrast footage of the Argentine’s demeanour in the build-up to PSG’s match at Ajaccio three weeks ago with his behaviour in the hour before kick-off at Bordeaux on Sunday.
At Ajaccio, he was all smiles and loose-limbed jollity. At Bordeaux, a concentrated frown did not leave his face – not when he alighted from the team bus, not when he went through his pre-match routine on the pitch at Stade Chaban-Delmas, and not when he lined up with his team-mates in the tunnel prior to the start of the 1-1 draw. “He doesn’t smile once,” observed host Hervé Mathoux.
PSG may be three points clear at the top of Ligue 1 and on course for the Europa League knockout phase, but that has not spared them from criticism. Paris, it is widely agreed, are impressive on occasion, but they remain a team of individuals. When Pastore isn’t on his game, Jérémy Ménez steps up. When Kévin Gameiro leaves his shooting boots at home, Antoine Kombouaré’s side turn to Nenê.